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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Harper crowd looks bad in its mishandling of airport death

November 21, 2007
Barbara Yaffe, Vancouver Sun

The Harper government has proven itself wholly inept in dealing with a snowballing crisis of confidence in both the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency.

Even as controversy flowing from a video of the Oct. 14 airport death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski is damaging Canada's international image, even as it has revealed deficiencies in national rather than provincial agencies, it has fallen to the B.C. government to pick up on demands for a full public inquiry.

B.C. Attorney-General Wally Oppal struck just the right chord this week, expressing deep distress about the Taser death and puzzlement about why Ottawa has not been forthcoming with answers.

Stephen Harper appears not to understand the depth of emotion that now surrounds this issue and has gone to ground, saying as little as possible.

He has left explanations to Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, who has announced a review of Taser use. It's unclear how this review will differ from other, previously announced probes.

Last weekend, Day demonstrated gratuitous insensitivity to the Dziekanski death by questioning why more Canadians aren't upset about drunk drivers.

Federal mishandling of the matter is all the more damaging because the Harper crowd is such a vigorous champion of law and order, and has worked so hard to bolster the image and might of Canada's police and military.

Before B.C.'s announcement Monday of its own public inquiry, no fewer than five investigations had been announced in scattergun fashion.

None was assigned to determined blame and none constitutes an independent body exclusively reflecting the public interest.

They included: A B.C. coroner's inquest; an OPP external review; an investigation by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP; a review by Day's Public Security department, and separate studies of Taser use and technology by the Canadian Police Centre and the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police.

At this point, taxpayers are bound to look askance at any police reviews, especially those involving self-scrutiny by the RCMP.

In fact, damaged confidence in the RCMP might be why the past two federal governments have looked to public inquiries instead of the national police force to investigate fishy federal situations.

An inquiry was struck to address the sponsorship scandal. And, more recently, Harper has agreed to an inquiry into allegations about Brian Mulroney made by Karlheinz Schreiber.

Public trust in the RCMP was eroded, certainly in B.C., after the 2005 death of Ian Bush, shot in the back of the head by a member of the force while the young man was in custody.

It was further eroded by the RCMP's initial statements in October regarding Dziekanski's Taser death, statements that depicted a wildly different situation than what video taken by an airport bystander later revealed.

People can only wonder how seriously they should take recounts by the RCMP, and about all the Taser incidents that have not been videotaped. What they don't know about those incidents is nearly as frightening as what they do.

Is it possible that the Harperites see the Dziekanski tragedy as a B.C. rather than a national issue because the RCMP doesn't constitute provincial police forces either in Quebec or Ontario -- where most Commons seats are?

The fact is that Taser deaths have occurred in all parts of the country. The fact is that public confidence in the RCMP has been lost nationally. The fact is that the border services agency operates in airports from one coast to another. The fact is that Dziekanski's death is being covered by news agencies globally. Even Al-Jezeera is on it.

A federal public inquiry should be struck to examine RCMP Taser use and recent deaths of those taken into custody. Such an inquiry should be mandated to review protocols used by border services agency at airports, and to scrutinize airport deficiencies in orientation services provided for international passengers. Separately, an independent Crown prosecutor should be considering charges against those involved in Dziekanski's death.

And while all this transpires, the 2,000 to 3,000 Taser guns currently at the disposal of Canada's police forces should be placed under lock and key.

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